Penumbra: Black Plague
You know that feeling you sometimes get in an FPS, the one where you've run out of ammo completely and are creeping around corridors praying to the gaming Gods that there's no monsters around the next corner? Horrible isn't it. Not horrible in a bad way mind you, just horrible in a 'damn, this is scary, I'm going to scream if something moves' kind of way. Often that tantalising slice of tension is soon interrupted by the appearance of fresh ammo followed by a healthy dose of blasting to ease your nerves, but the guys at Swedish developers Frictional Games have taken things a step further and built an entire game around the idea of being unarmed, defenceless and scared.
After turning what started life as a physics demo into last year's impressive if flawed Penumbra: Overture the small team at Frictional have taken on-board the feedback they've received and created a sequel, Penumbra: Black Plague. Billed, much like the original, as a psychological horror experience, playing Black Plague feels a lot more like playing a point and click adventure from a first-person perspective than you'd perhaps expect if you're coming to the series for the first time. In fact, while it's true you play through the game weaponless and the whole thing looks like a traditional FPS at first glance, my original analogy is somewhat forced because the number of genuine enemies you encounter (and run away from) is limited, however the brooding atmosphere creates an almost constant feeling of imminent danger that's only amplified by the knowledge you can't call on a handy shotgun to help should the need arise.
With the exploration and puzzle solving side of things firmly placed centre stage it's the impressive physics engine that's used to create most of the game's posers. Every object populating the game world can be manipulated much like you could in real life, with everything around you reacting to your actions as you'd expect. It's not as simple as just pointing and clicking however; you'll have to use your mouse to mimic the required action. Grab the lid of a box and push the mouse up to open it, hold a leaver and use a circular motion on the mouse to turn it, that kind of thing. This adds a nice degree of versatility to your interaction, although there were some teething problems with the translations of your blatantly 2D mouse movement into a proper 3D world in the preview code I got my hands on.
The use of the game world to provide the puzzles in this way is a welcome change from the more traditional combine 'x with y' to produce 'z' approach taken by other adventure games. It makes things feel far more intuitive and, dare I say it, realistic. An early example of the game's perfectly logical stance to puzzles has you using a vice on a workbench to flatten a coin before you can use it as a makeshift screwdriver, just like you would in real life (were you to ever find yourself locked in a room with nothing but a coin, a vice and a ventilation shaft for company). There's also often multiple ways to solve puzzles, the focus very clearly and commendably on providing a fully 'working' world and then letting you find your own way about it using the tools provided.
The story in Black Plague picks up after the end of the first game with series lead Philip (that be you that is) waking up in a dank and dirty cell somewhere with the sound of torture coming from somewhere close by. Once you've escaped from your cell it's down to you to figure out where you are and what's going on (is it just me or does that make it sound like Portal only with less, umm, portals). While the original included a few basic melee weapons even those have been removed this time around leaving the ham-fisted throwing of anything you can get your hands on as your only form of defence if you ever are forced into combat (tip, don't let it get to that stage, run!).
To make things that little more eerie you're not alone for a lot of the game, however your companion isn't a comforting comedy sidekick, instead it's a voice in Philip's head called Clarence. Despite the rather gentile name Clarence has the unsettling ability to change your perceptions, causing you to see and hear things that aren't there (or are they...). As if things weren't spooky enough, now you can't even trust your own senses.
Considering the low budget and small team, Penumbra: Black Plague's impressive physics engine alone is worth experiencing for yourself, add to that the genuinely innovative puzzles and deliciously creepy atmosphere and you've got a game that's well worth keeping an eye on when its released in Europe in the next few months.